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Shopping Center King : Ernest Hahn: Born to Shop for Mall Sites

June 08, 1986|RUTH RYON | Times Staff Writer

OK, I'll admit it. I love to shop. My 12-year-old daughter loves to shop. It wasn't until I met Ernest W. Hahn, though, that I knew whom to blame.

A friendly fellow, slightly balding with white hair, Hahn was waiting for me in the parking lot of his Rancho Santa Fe offices when I arrived a few minutes late. "I was afraid that you had gotten lost," he said in a tone of genuine concern.

Where was his concern, I asked myself, when I bought that $100 dress last week at my neighborhood mall?

It's all his fault, you know, the proliferation in California of regional and local shopping centers. Oh, he didn't build all of them, but he did develop more regional malls on the West Coast than anyone else.

The Courtyard in Rolling Hills, Plaza Pasadena, Hawthorne Plaza, Fox Hills Mall, Santa Monica Place: They're just a few of the 50 regional and 20-some neighborhood shopping centers developed by Ernest W. Hahn Inc., now headquartered in San Diego.

And it wasn't enough to hook Californians like myself on shopping. Hahn also developed out of state: The Fashion Show Mall in Las Vegas, Clackamas Town Center in Portland, Ore., The Tivoli in Denver and The Mall of Memphis, to name a few.

Ernest W. Hahn Inc. still owns as many regional shopping centers as the company is years old. Like many yuppies, it is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

The shopping center industry is about as old as the International Council of Shopping Centers, which will mark its 30th anniversary next May. So the industry grew up and was influenced by the Baby Boomers.

A publicist for Ernest W. Hahn Inc. proudly stated: "Ernest Hahn was there, on the heels of these babies' first steps, always exploring new ideas and taking chances." No more chances than I take of spending more than I should every week when I step inside my local mall, I thought, but I was wrong.

Back in 1977, Hahn took some big chances, incorporating housing, office and recreational space in the master plan for his University Towne Center in La Jolla, which he considers a forerunner of today's regional mixed-use retail center.

That same year, he installed ice rinks as focal points in many of his centers. He didn't know then what a poll taken lately in all Hahn Inc.-operated centers disclosed:

Fifty-four per cent of the shoppers said they visit the shopping centers without having a specific purchase in mind--they just want to browse or be entertained. I found that out almost as soon as my daughter could walk, let alone skate.

Nationwide Acclaim

Ice rinks at malls were forerunners of the mimes, jugglers, marching bands, even the design at one of Hahn Inc.'s newest malls: San Diego's 11-acre, $140-million Horton Plaza, which Hahn calls "the Disneyland of merchandising." Can't say I always want to go to Disneyland, but I was drawn to Horton Plaza for the entertainment. Then, of course, I went shopping.

Hahn took some of the biggest chances of his career at Horton Plaza, which has received nationwide acclaim since it opened last August and in February was second only to a center in San Jose in terms of the company's retail sales.

John M. Gilchrist Jr., the 41-year-old president and chief executive officer of Hahn Inc. who started with Hahn as a 19-year-old college sophomore, wrote in an operations update last summer that Horton Plaza is the "catalyst for a $3-billion burst of commercial, residential and tourist-related development."

Before Horton Plaza opened, it was viewed with skepticism because of its location in the middle of a downtown that was rife with porno theaters, liquor stores and run-down businesses. Hahn has since been praised for being the only developer with enough courage and faith to attempt the project and see it through--well, mostly through.

The center's four department stores, 150 specialty shops, numerous fast-food outlets, restaurants and seven-screen cinema are open, but a repertory theater that was supposed to be completed last year just opened May 31, and the ranch market that was expected to open in January is now scheduled to be ready for customers in late August or early September.

From the beginning, Horton Plaza was plagued with delays. It took Hahn about 10 years from start to finish. Not unusual for a downtown redevelopment project, Hahn says philosophically.

Horton Plaza is unusual, though, because it is a mixed-use redevelopment project that is the centerpiece of a new downtown, and it is intriguing to look at, like the Hotel del Coronado, built in 1888 across San Diego Bay. By inviting such imaginative design, by Jon Jerde, for such a grandiose project, Hahn took another chance.

Financially, Hahn also took some chances on Horton Plaza, though he sold his company in 1980 for $270 million to Trizec, a Canadian firm with $4 billion in income-property assets. Eight years earlier, Hahn Inc. had gone public, another chance, one he now considers a mistake "for an entrepreneurial business with growth reflected in properties."

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